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Extreme Poverty, Human Rights and Roma

7 May 2002

Claude Cahn

When in 1996 the ERRC first began work, among our first observations about the interaction of Roma and the wider society was the following: most governments in Europe – where they addressed issues facing Roma at all – treated the Romani issue as a “social issue”. Our early research efforts told us that this approach was not adequate. We heard in this language governments denying racism. We heard governments telling Roma – and the world – that once they have resolved issues related to poverty, the problems of Roma would be solved. We revolted against this approach because of what we saw and heard around us: hate speech, humiliating treatment at the hands of local authorities and the police, discriminatory burdens. In adopting a focus on racism and racial discrimination, we have frequently been at odds with some members of the Romani leadership who, like their governments, have told us that “the problem of the Roma is that they are poor.”

Our purism was swiftly challenged: a glance at Romani societies reveals some rich, and many, many poor, including not a few communities where poverty is so deep it shocks. My first visit to Ukraine began in a community where a newborn child had just died as a result of the obscene sanitary conditions in the settlement (sewage running in the steets, water drawn from an infected well, etc). No one had the money to pay for a burial. On another occasion, on a visit in Romania, we went to document a reported police abuse case, but could not finish our work because we were surrounded by starving children.

Our initial rights instincts are moved by the sight of formerly “integrated” Central and Eastern European Romani families, who suddenly discovered, following the changes of 1989, that they were pushed out again from society – that they were the first to lose their jobs, that their non-Romani friends had abandoned them, that they were marginalised from all communities – Romani and non-Romani. We work with them to claim the rights in reach, but blocked by the forces of racism. Our initial response to the shock of meeting the extremely poor is to plead that we have no role – that what is needed is charitable humanitarian intervention; that before rights remedies can work, people must have bread and a roof.

But do such distinctions stand scrutiny? Earlier this year, Roma in a ghetto in the town of Stolpinovo, Bulgaria rioted after the local electrical company cut off power on grounds that Roma were not paying the bills. The Bulgarian media – publishing the extent of the debt as well as details of the riots – rallied non-Romani opinion in roundly condemning the Roma: The Gypsies deserved their darkness for being too irresponsible to pay. And worse, said the press, once the party of free electricity had come to an end, the Gypsies had the nerve to go on a destructive spree, wrecking downtown Stolpinovo (see pages 108-109 in this issue of Roma Rights). Scarcely reported was the fact that the entire Romani ghetto was billed from several common electrical metres; once a few Roma began failing to pay, debt amassed against them all. And where is the justice in that?

For those who question the principles of indivisibility and interdependence of human rights, reflection upon extreme poverty may urge a change of mind. First of all and most significantly, extreme poverty is inherently an assault to dignity. But it also serves as an insurmountable hurdle to the enjoyment of civil and political rights. If, like in the case of the Roma, extreme poverty is compounded by racial prejudice and discrimination, rights abuse becomes systematic and unlikely to be addressed. Ultimately, we capitulate to the rights acquis as both morally desirable and empirically adequate. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires states to “undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization” of economic, social and cultural rights. This is to be done “by all appropriate means” and “without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” States parties to the Covenant – and in Europe this includes all states except Andorra – therefore commit themselves to the general implementation over time of the Covenant, but also to assuring that no groups fall behind.

We hold to our belief that in many instances, humanitarian assistance is the first need. But we are sure our rights approach is never far behind. In the first place, this means ensuring that racial discrimination does not hinder the realisation of fundamental human rights. Secondly, we have acted to make social and economic rights justiciable; on pages 133-134 of this issue of Roma Rights are details of an ERRC law suit in Serbia and Montenegro aiming to assist a group of Roma in Belgrade in realising the right to adequate housing. Finally, public discourse surrounding the riots in Bulgaria is unjust, as are government programmes treating the Romani issue as solely a “social issue”. Our role is to elucidate the role of racism, and to advocate that governments act to combat its pernicious effects, including those comprising the complex of extreme poverty. The articles in these pages are part of that project.

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